“Life Abundant”

Who do you belong to? How would you answer that question? You might name your nation. Or perhaps your family. The community of First Church? For most of us, the defining relationships in our lives began with our families and the people who raised us; the people to whom we were born. It’s interesting to look at the near obsession that cultures around the world have with those who don’t have parents. Our literary landscape abounds with the stories of orphans: from Peter Pan and his lost boys, to Oliver Twist; Anne of Green Gables, Tom Sawyer and David Copperfield. Mary Lennox and her secret garden, Les Miserables’ Cosette, The Little Princess Sarah Crew and Dorothy wisked off to Oz by a tornado; not to mention Heidi, Pollyanna and Pippi. In fairytales we have Cinderella, Snow White, Rupunzel, Aladdin, and Hansel and Gretel. In comics there is Superman, Spiderman, Batman, and, not to be outdone, Batman’s sidekick Robin—all of them orphans. And how could we forget Luke Skywalker, little orphan Annie, Frodo Baggins, Prince Caspian, Lemony Snicket’s Buadelaire children, or the now infamous Harry Potter. These are merely a few of the many famous orphans of literature, fantasy and film.

I think we find orphans so compelling because they fundamentally challenge where they come from. They may start off destitute, unloved, and living with mean step-sisters, but in the end their lives are transformed. They get the prince, defeat the bad guy, find surrogate family, or in the case of Lemony Snickets simply stay alive and occasionally bite someone—but in all cases they win our sympathy because they don’t give up until they have changed their circumstances.

The context of our gospel passage today is the discussion of birth. The scholar Bruce Malina points out that in the 1st century Mediterranean world “Birth status was the single, all-important factor in determining a person’s honor rating. Ascribed honor, the honor derived from one’s status at birth, was simply a given. It usually stayed with a person for life. . . . This meant that aside from extraordinary circumstances, a nonelite peasant remained a nonelite peasant until death.” So imagine how ridiculous it must have sounded to 1st century ears to hear Jesus tell the Pharisee Nicodemus that no one may enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. The Greek word anothen, used here as a pun, can mean both again and from above. To be born again would “alter one’s ascribed honor status in a very fundamental way,” bestowing a new honor status on the person. Therefore, “a second birth, especially if it differed significantly from the first birth, would be a life-changing event of staggering proportion.”[1] Nicodemus provides the perfect foil for Jesus, prompting elaboration.

For God so loved the world, that he sent his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life. Jesus comes into the world, not to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved. These are weighty words. They are well known words.

What does it mean that Jesus is sent into the world, descending from heaven, in order to save the world? For Nicodemus, our modern notions of the orphan turned hero would be baffling, but here Jesus is talking about being not only born again, but born from above—in essence being born into the family of God. How can one get a do-over in a society where status is determined at birth, except by being re-born, and born from above as a child of God; a member of God’s family, with the status that comes with it. Imagine being a serf with no social status, and being told that you could be born anew to be kin of the King of Kings? Imagine being a 1st century woman whose only status derives from your father or husband, suddenly having your own standing by birthright. Now imagine being a black slave in the American South, a piece of property with no hope of being something else. And then you hear Jesus’ words. Because God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that all might be saved. Imagine how radical that must have sounded! Think how radical it still sounds.

If Jesus were here today, maybe he would say “so that the 99% and not just the wealthy few might be saved.” Or “so that all people, no matter what sexual orientation they claim, might be saved.” Or perhaps he would say it exactly the same, and simply leave it at all. Jesus spoke on behalf of the poor, the children, the widow, and yes, the orphan, claiming that all had equal access to God. As members of the same family, all distinctions of status are erased. The Kin-dom of God is based on a different ordering than what the world follows. It’s based on kinship – equal siblings and children of God, all.

But of course, that is not the world we live in right now, at least for the most part. Children starve everyday in nearly every country in the world. People die of preventable diseases and because they don’t have clean drinking water. The powers of this world don’t recognize our equal status as brothers and sister, and too often we forget it as well. In the video at the beginning of the service, we saw some of the people who are helped by special offering we’ll collect today, called One Great Hour of Sharing. Based on the biblical model of God’s kin-dom where all are fed, and clothed, and housed, we are asked to share our resources toward that end.

One of the confusing parts about the kin-dom of God is that it is here (inaugurated by Jesus coming into the world), and also not yet here. But every time we act as though we truly are brothers and sisters with every other person, no matter who they are, where they live or what they look like, we bring about a piece of that kin-dom.

It is more than simply a good deed. It is at the heart of the God we worship. Jesus says in today’s passage that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. But my question is believe what? If we believe the example that Jesus’ life and death give us, we believe in the way he was in the world. Then we believe that God loved the world so profoundly, the whole of creation and all of God’s children, that God sent us the example we need to have life abundant. We believe that God put the path before our feet and invited us home with open arms and extravagant love like the father welcoming home the Prodigal Son. And that belief naturally leads us to action. It becomes not simply a good deed, something to be held up in the light and bragged about, but rather something that is inextricably tied to who we are; to our identity as children of God, followers of Jesus, and kin.

Who do you belong to? Is the orphan doomed to the circumstances of his or her birth? Or is it possible, no matter whom we are or where we come from, to be transformed, reborn from above into one family where all are equally valued and extraordinarily loved?

My prayer is the psalmist’s declaration of praise, “Give thanks for Yhwh’s goodness; God’s love endures forever!” Let these be the words of Yhwh’s redeemed, From east and west, from northern lands and southern seas. For God so loved the world . . .  Amen.

[1] Bruce Malina, Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John, 80-82.